This paper examines the increasingly important role envisaged for all types of libraries, especially Public Libraries in the realisation of the Information Society, making special reference to developments in the United Kingdom. The global proliferation of online information has already led to a growing national and international recognition of the potential of libraries and librarians as readily accessible “deliverers”, especially to those in our communities who are currently socially excluded.
However, access to libraries and Information Technology may be impeded by a variety of barriers. Apart from any problems of physical access, there are a number of psychological barriers which can frustrate the accessioning of information. The natural human fear of the unknown and the need to protect the self esteem can be powerful inhibitors, especially to the more psychologically vulnerable. Low self esteem is more likely to occur in those who are socially excluded. Also, research has indicated that large numbers of adults find interacting with a computer a threatening experience. In the early days of computerisation their problems could be partly resolved by shunning contact with computers but avoidance of human-computer interactions in normal life is becoming increasingly difficult. Additionally, recent research has revealed a widespread deficiency in literacy and numeracy skills, a problem not confined to the United Kingdom. Those disadvantaged in this way are less likely than others to gravitate towards a library environment, whether print-based or electronic, where their lack of expertise will be highlighted.. Those who are well educated and have matured in a tradition of literacy and culture may find difficulty in visualising the degree of feelings of inadequacy and alienation sustained by those who lack previous experience of Libraries and Information technology. As we progress into the information-rich 21st century, with a growing emphasis on Information Technology in the delivery of education and training, some concern is warranted that the very mode and location of delivery may serve to exacerbate the social exclusion we are trying to overcome.
Positive steps need to be taken by librarians and others in contact with the library/computer naive to ensure that their initial experiences are positive and confidence-enhancing, thus easing the transition to the Information Society.
The paper draws on current research into “Barriers discouraging access to Libraries as agents of Lifelong Learning” which has been funded by the Library and Information Commission.